Arctic Heroes.

A Fragment of Naval History.

Scene, a stupendous region of icebergs and snow. The bare
mast of a half-buried ship stands among the rifts and
ridges. The figures of two men, covered closely with furs and
skins, slowly emerge from beneath the winter-housing of the
deck, and descend upon the snow by an upper ladder, and
steps cut below in the frozen wall of snow. They advance.
1st Man.
We are out of hearing now. Give thy
heart words.
[They walk on in silence some steps further, and then pause.
2nd Man.
Here ’midst the sea’s unfathomable ice,2
Life-piercing cold, and the remorseless night3
Which never ends, nor changes its dead face,4
Save in the ’ghast smile of the hopeless moon,5
Must slowly close our sum of wasted hours ;6
And with them all the enterprising dreams,7
Efforts, endurance, and resolve, which make8
The power and glory of us Englishmen.9
1st Man.
It may be so.10
2nd Man.
Oh, doubt not but it must.11
Day after day, week crawling after week,12
So slowly that they scarcely seem to move,13
Nor we to know it, till our calendar14
Shows us that months have lapsed away, and left15
Our drifting time, while here our bodies lie16
Like melancholy blots upon the snow.17
Thus have we lived, and gradually seen,18
By calculations which appear to mock19
Our hearts with their false figures, that ’tis now20
Three years since we were cut off from the world21
By these impregnable walls of solid ocean !22
1st Man.
All this is true : the physical elements23
We thought to conquer, are too strong for man.24
2nd Man.
We have felt the crush of battle
side by side ;
Seen our best friends, with victory in their eyes,26
Suddenly smitten down, a mangled heap,27
And thought our own turn might be next ; yet
Drooped we in spirit, or such horror felt29
As in the voiceless tortures of this place,30
Which freezes up the mind.31
1st Man.
Not yet.32
2nd Man.
I feel it.33
Death, flying red-eyed from the cannon’s mouth.34
Were child’s play to confront, compared with this.35
Inch by inch famine in the silent frost—36
The cold anatomies of our dear friends,37
One by one carried in their rigid sheets38
To lay beneath the snow—till he that’s last,39
Creeps to the lonely horror of his berth40
Within, the vacant ship, and while the bears41
Grope round and round, thinks of his distant home—42
Those dearest to him—glancing rapidly43
Through his past life—then with a wailful sigh44
And a brief prayer, his soul becomes a blank.45
1st Man.
This is despair—I’Il hear no more of it.46
We have provisions still.
2nd Man.
And for how long ?47
1st Man.
A flock of wild birds may pass over us,48
And some our shots may reach.49
2nd Man.
And by this chance50
Find food for one day more.51
1st Man.
Yes, and thank God ;52
For the next day may preservation come,53
And rescue from old England.54
2nd. Man.
All our fuel55
Is nearly gone ; and as the last log burns56
And falls in ashes, so may we foresee57
The frozen circle sitting round.58
1st Man.
Nay, nay—59
Our boats, loose spars, our masts, and half our
Must serve us ere that pass. But, if indeed61
Nothing avail, and no help penetrate62
To this remote place, inaccessible63
Perchance for years, except to some wild bird—64
We came here knowing all this might befal,65
And set our lives at stake. God’s will be done.66
I, too, have felt the horrors of our fate :67
Jammed in a moving field of solid ice,68
Borne onward day and night we knew not where,69
Till the loud cracking sounds reverberating70
Far distant, were soon followed by the rending71
Of the vast pack, whose heaving blocks and wedges,72
Like crags broke loose, all rose to our destruction73
As by some ghastly instinct. Then the hand74
Of winter smote the all-congealing air,75
And with its freezing tempest piled on high76
These massy fragments which environ us :—77
Cathedrals many-spired, by lightning riven—78
Sharp-angled chaos-heaps of palaced cities,79
With splintered pyramids, and broken towers80
That yawn for ever at the bursting moon81
And her four pallid flame-spouts. Now, appalled82
By the long roar o’ the cloud-like avalanche—83
Now, by the stealthy creeping of the glaciers84
In silence tow’rds our frozen ships. So Death85
Hath often whispered to me in the night ;86
And I have seen him in the Aurora-gleam87
Smile as I rose and came upon the deck ;88
Or when the icicle’s prismatic glance—89
Bright, flashing—and then, colourless, unmoved
Emblem’d our passing life, and its cold end.91
Oh, friend in many perils, fail not now !92
Am I not, e’en as thou art, utterly sick93
Of my own heavy heart, and loading clothes ?—94
A mind—that in its firmest hour hath fits95
Of madness for some change, that shoot across96
Its steadfastness, and scarce are trampled down.97
Yet, friend, I will not let my spirit sink,98
Nor shall mine eyes, e’en with snow-blindness
Man’s great prerogative of inward sight100
Forego, nor cease therein to speculate101
On England’s feeling for her countrymen ;102
Whereof relief will some day surely come.103
2nd. Man.
I well believe it ; but perhaps too
1st. Man.
Then, if too late, one noble task
And one consoling thought. We, to the last,106
With firmness, order, and considerate care,107
Will act as though our death-beds were at home,108
Grey heads with honour sinking to the tomb ;109
So future times shall record bear that we,110
Imprisoned in these frozen horrors, held111
Our sense of duty, both to man and God.112
The muffled beat of the ship’s bell sounds for evening
The two men return : they ascend the steps in the snow—
then the ladder—and disappear beneath the snow-covered
housing of the deck.